Friday, August 30, 2013

The Story With Blueberries

Some friends of mine from Barcelona, Spain, who have spent the summer working on farms in the area had asked me: "What is the story with blueberries in Maine?" I changed the subject to the benefits of antioxidant-rich foods, suddenly realizing I had always taken this tiny commodity for granted.

Coincidentally, I stopped by the Welcome Table the other day to meet with Kara Ibarguen, and while we were cutting corn off the cob in preparation for their evening community meal (Wednesdays 3-6pm), one of the volunteers spoke of a job opportunity she was contemplating at Wyman's of Maine, the leading frozen blueberry operation that employs a large number of local and immigrant families.

From the conversation I gleaned that considering a job in the Cherryfield factory of Wyman's of Maine was not going to be comfortable in the least. The conversation became desperate as we all imagined her working 12-hour night shifts in an attempt to cover her bills. Was this really her only option? Would her health be affected?

One of the other volunteers, who had worked at Merrill Blueberry Farms of Hancock, Maine, explained to us what it was like to work in the laboratory of one of these factories, constantly taking samples for quality control and classifying the different grades of blueberries; a very deliberate and thorough process that these producers take very seriously. There are three different blueberry quality classifications: the Grade A blueberries sold primarily to the Japanese market, Grade B sold fresh or fresh-frozen all over the world, and Grade C used for food processors to produce juice, yogurt or ice cream.

I marvelled at these ladies, embarrassed at how much Robert McCloskey's iconic Blueberries for Sal had been a part of my upbringing, and yet how little I really knew about how blueberries have sculpted the socio-economic landscape of Maine.

I'd always heard that raking blueberries was hard work. My father raked for a few summers growing up, and said it was back breaking; however it was such good pay that as a teenager he had even imagined getting rich off it. Questions started to form in my head about our immigrant communities and their work in the blueberry industry, and the evolution of how these industries had once sustained our local communities of people - in some cases the same people who are now food insecure. 

Mary Hildebrand from the Simmering Pot community meal-site called me a couple of weeks ago to let me know her blueberry patch was ready to be gleaned.

We raked for an hour...

...and we sorted for five!

I arrived at the Emmaus Center the next day for Saturday's Free Produce and Bread Day with various donations: 50 lbs of orange blossom tomatoes from College of the Atlantic's Community Garden, some leftover cucumbers from Thursday's Produce and Bread Day, and 30 lbs of blueberries from the Gleaning Initiative's own harvest.

It turns out, I had been unable to fully separate the leaves and stems from the blueberries, and was determined to get some answers. Along with laughter at my self-effacing story, I got more than answers: "You go like this!" A woman picked up one of the rakes I had borrowed from my father's dining room wall, bent her knees and her torso, letting her arms hang down a couple feet from the ground and began brushing the air left to right drawing a figure eight through the imaginary blueberry bushes beneath her. She then held the rake above her head at an angle and let the wind blow the leaves and stems of my mind to a whole new level of appreciation as I realized that the blueberries we had picked were rightfully falling full-circle into the hands of people who had once worked so hard for blueberries I may have eaten in the past.


(left) Susannah Taylor from Bread & Circuses
Marta GarcĂ­a-Bragado from Educant Saltamartins
 Alejandra Coll from Asilvestrada (right)

Friday, August 16, 2013

Authentic Farming and Gleaning in Monroe

This morning I woke up at 6am to head out to White’s Farm in Monroe, ME. I'd been invited by Stewart White to glean beens and large squash. It was a memorable early morning drive!

Thrilled to have found someone to come out and harvest vegetables that he can't sell or feed to his family or pigs, Stewart White confesses "the pigs are fussy, they don't like beans, and they'll eat the squash but you have to grind it up for them". Which is why the second time I showed up at the Blue Hill Farmer's Market he yelled out "Hey gleaner! Want some beans and squash?".

Stewart White has been raising pigs since the 1970s. He stopped when factory pig farms flooded supermarkets with cheap meat, making it impossible for him to sell his product. Back then his prices were 75 cents per pound, and supermarkets had their prices around 10 cents per pound, which steered all of this market away.

Five years ago, Stewart and his son started raising pigs again, seeing an emerging market driven by local consumers' interest in purchasing and eating healthy, local, sustainable meat. White's Farm has since joined the Farmers’ Markets in the region to sell products from their two businesses, Smith’s Smoke House and White’s Farm, with the motto “We Do it All”.
Stewart White’s family-run operation has raised 120 pigs this season, including 30 sows. Their 8 acres of land provides them with enough space for a large vegetable garden and plenty of room for the pigs to live at large. During summer the pigs are fed from the garden and home food waste, and in the winter Stewart gleans food from school lunches in the area.

I first approached Stewart at the Bucksport Bay Farmer’s Market one Thursday afternoon early in the season. I asked him about his pigs, and whether or not he gleaned. Many of us think of gleaning only in terms of harvesting surplus food for people to eat directly. Gleaning food for people is one way to repurpose edible food waste, but collecting food products or food waste that we would not want to eat serves an environmental purpose of reducing waste and is a resourceful way to promote food production. Gleaning follows the recycling logic with a preventive priority list that puts human diet at the top and disposal at the bottom with a series of options in between. Animal feed is the next best use of food that has gone uneaten by people.

In speaking to Stewart I learned that one limitation of gleaning to provide food for animals is that this practice does not qualify under most organic certification standards, including the Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association (MOFGA) certification process. Therefore, pigs that are raised on gleaned food can not be sold as certified organic meat. This restriction is in place because a farmer can not ensure that all the food she or he gleans is organic, and therefore once the animal eats the food, the meat product can not be certain to be organic. Some controversy exists regarding this rule, one argument being that vegetables are fed with compost that may include non-organic waste. The current standards state that as long as the compost is raised past a certain temperature, it can be used on organically certified vegetables. However, could not the digestive system and metabolism of a pig be as good a cleaning mechanism of non-organic residues as is high-heat treatment? It is perhaps a stretch to compare, but it certainly seems worthy of debate, particularly as it relates to gleaning and preventing food waste from reaching landfills.

Regardless of this ongoing debate, many people do glean food for raising farm animals, including Stewart. Gleaning is a central part of his farm’s mission and practice. Like some other farms in the region, White's Farm is committed to sustainable and ecological farming practices, producing healthy food without pursuing organic certification. These farms, including Four Season Farm in Harborside, market their foods as Authentic Farming. Organic certification is an important part of the agricultural movement, enabling us to understand better the practices of farms and the healthfulness of food. At the same time, other methods can also bring about healthy and sustainable farming practices - especially when the farm is local and we can visit and learn about the farms ourselves. And in the case of gleaning to feed animals, benefits can come from practices that do not qualify as organic.

Stewart loves his pigs, and his pigs love mac n' cheese - so do our kids. By gleaning school lunches food waste disposal costs are reduced, and the educational opportunity for kids to participate in recycling, and gain respect for quality food, is gained. Stewart says “the little kids do the best job” because there is “no trash in the buckets.” It might even be an act of love for the piglets, since Stewart often brings some with him to further engage the kids in their recycling responsibilities.

Stewart used to glean from supermarkets. When he started raising pigs again with his son, he decided a vegetable garden was a good way to have extra produce for his farm stand and be able to feed his family, and provide his pigs with unused or inedible garden products. His recent collaboration with the Gleaning Initiative has given him another alternative to repurposing his garden's bounty for people who need it most.

Stewart takes pride in feeding his pigs from his garden and from gleaned leftovers. He finds it disrespectful to the animals he knows so well to do it any other way and says "they are food, and they need to be respected". The gleaning of waste from school lunches is one way he feeds his pigs in the winter, but it is not driven by economic logics - the ecological and social impact is in fact greater. He spends one and a half hours to get 60 gallons of gleaned food from schools in a day, and he also spends $60 per week on fuel to reach the schools. He says he does it because he loves his pigs, and he can teach the kids about recycling and food quality, and get them to love the pigs too - that is what makes it all worth it to him.

In the picture below see Stewart’s wood work available at Blue Hill, Bucksport Bay, and Carmel Farmer’s Markets. Check out all the great produce and other goods at the farmers’ markets throughout the region. Flyers with listings of farmers’ markets by area can be found on Healthy Acadia’s website here:

Check out White's Farm and Smith's Smokehouse, and consider Farm Drop an option for getting your weekly order of locally grown food. Also for any questions about gleaning or to get involved please contact Hannah Semler at 667-7171 or